Profesor Joseph Yu-Shek Cheng explains the tense political backdrop to a Beijing official's rare Hong Kong visit. Radical calls for independence have sprouted across the city as mainstream demands fall on deaf ears.
Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the standing committee of China's National People's Congress, arrived in Hong Kong on Tuesday. During his trip, he will discuss the special administrative region's (SAR) role in President Xi Jinping's international economic initiatives.
Chinese leaders rarely visit Hong Kong, outside of an annual July commemoration of the territory's return to China through the "one country, two systems" agreement. Some speculate that the visit is related to a possible decision taken by Beijing to re-elect C. Y. Leung next March as the city's chief executive. Others see it as a response to calls for independence lobbied for by radical groups in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy groups have noticed that the Chinese officials responsible for Hong Kong have toned down their criticism in recent months. But there is no sign that Beijing's policy toward Hong Kong is softening. As a result, with calls for a change in the territory's political representation continuously ignored, Hong Kong is only growing more rebellious, with Zhang's visit providing a backdrop for the increasingly tense relations.
After demands by "Occupy Central" protestors for the democratic election of Hong Kong's chief executive were rejected in late 2014, Hong Kong's mainstream pro-democracy parties proposed three accommodations to stem the political polarization.
First, they called for the continuation of deliberations on political reforms concerning the election of Hong Kong's legislature in 2020, and its chief executive in 2022. But there has since been no such discussion, and Hong Kong residents no longer expect any breakthrough in the foreseeable future.
Second, the parties suggested that C.Y. Leung's administration initiate community-wide consultations on issues significant to the livelihood of Hong Kongers, like the pension system. The government did in fact kick off consultations on retirement benefits, but it has set so many restrictions that many in the social work profession have refused to participate.
The third proposal was for the appointment of some student leaders and young activists to the government's advisory committee, which has been dominated by the territory's rich and powerful families. Again, the C.Y. Leung administration refused to respond.
Pro-democracy groups fared reasonably well in district council elections last November and a by-election for a legislative council seat in Hong Kong's New Territories East region in February. The electoral outcomes have allowed them to claim strong and sustained popular support.
Meanwhile, many young radical political groups have emerged. In recent months, one movement has called for the territory's independence while others have sought an official referendum to be held on Hong Kong's future.
Tighter control, looser bonds
These latter demands are totally unacceptable to the Chinese leadership; in fact, their implementation would be considered a cause for the use of force by Beijing.
These radical groups, as well as the general public, understand that these demands won't be implemented under the Chinese communist regime. Their articulation is rather a way to express a rejection of the legitimacy of the SAR administration and Beijing's policy towards Hong Kong.
It is worth noting that, from 1997 to 2008, public opinion surveys consistently revealed that residents of Hong Kong were growing in their identification with China and trust of its leadership. But both trends have since reversed, and, over the past three years, they have begun to plummet.
This change in sentiment has been caused by Beijing's increasing interference in Hong Kong's affairs, the general tightening of the political climate in mainland China since 2008, and the blatant rejection of the demand in Hong Kong for democracy. Unfortunately, there is still no indication that either the Chinese leadership or the C.Y. Leung administration is willing to engage in serious self-reflection to change the tide.
Beijing apparently sees the demands coming from Hong Kong as the result of spoiled, childish behavior, stemming from a lack of appreciation for the economic policy support Chinese leaders have provided. Residents of Hong Kong must therefore be taught to appreciate the limits of the "one country, two systems" model. Hence, the Chinese authorities have adopted a more hawkish position.
Gauging the temperature
The coming legislative council elections in September will be a crucial evaluation of the political situation. The pro-democracy movement is expected to again receive a majority of the votes, but the young radical candidates may capture as much as a quarter of the total.
Meanwhile, leaders of the established pro-democracy parties are concerned that, with a potential overabundance of candidates, they will be underrepresented by the multi-seat, single vote electoral system.
In any case, most Hong Kong residents are concerned about the political polarization and the erosion of effective governance. In view of the increasing interference from Beijing, many people worry that Hong Kong's core values and traditional life-styles cannot be upheld. Young people are more inclined to take their political struggles to the streets.
If the unpopular C. Y. Leung is re-elected next year with the backing of Chinese leaders, and Hong Kong's economy is confronted with severe challenges as a result of the mainland's economic slowdown, the political scene may well further deteriorate.
Joseph Yu-shek Cheng is Chair Professor of Political Science and Coordinator of the Contemporary China Research Project, City University of Hong Kong.
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